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Mourning in Barcelona

Fri, 08/18/2017 - 08:17

"We pray that God may convert the stony hearts of the terrorists into hearts of flesh."

By Javier Menéndez Ros

(NEW YORK, Aug. 18, 2017)—“Today we are witnessing a sad dawn over Barcelona, and with it over the whole of Spain, over Europe and the whole civilized world. One of the most beautiful cities in our country, bathed in light and washed by the waves of the Mediterranean, has witnessed a dawn bathed in bloodshed, amid cries of grief and incomprehension. Last night, a new jihadist attack, like so many before it to which we have now sadly become accustomed, surprised civilians strolling through Las Ramblas, the most typical of the avenues through which people like to relax in Barcelona, destroying all who found themselves in the path of the assassin’s vehicle.

In a tragic form of the via crucis we remember today the many other recent jihadist attacks on European soil – Nice, Berlin, London, Hamburg, Stockholm, Paris and Normandy. But the stations on the way to the Passion are innumerable outside the borders of Europe – in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Yemen, Congo, India, Pakistan – and there is an immensely long list of suffering, when we speak about Islamist terrorism, which is affecting above all the Christian minorities throughout the world. All of us at Aid to the Church in Need wish to remember all of these places especially today and keep them always in our prayer.

 

We at the Catalonian section of ACN, whose offices are close to the site of this recent attack, and together with everyone in our pontifical charity ACN in Spain and throughout the world, wish to express our closeness today to the victims of this most recent attack, uniting ourselves in prayer with all persons of goodwill and praying for the grace to overcome the ways of hatred and violence and to defeat evil with good (Romans 12:21). We pray likewise that God may convert the stony hearts of the terrorists into hearts of flesh and we invoke Our Lady of Mercy, the Patroness of Barcelona, asking her especially to help us to forgive and never to cease spreading the message of love of her Son Jesus.”

Javier Menéndez Ros is director of Aid to the Church in Need-Spain

Research project honors the martyrs of El Salvador

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 08:53

"All of us who fought for the dignity of the poor were threatened and persecuted. I just did not want to be tortured before I died."

By Mónica Zorita

“WHEN someone sacrificed his life for something, then it is worth asking why he did so.” That statement by Franciscan Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain, an Irish missionary in El Salvador, goes to the heart of the mission of the newly-established Office of Lay Martyrs of the Church in El Salvador. Its task will be to pay tribute to those who were murdered during the country’s bloody civil war (1980-1992) and to recognize the victims as martyrs for the faith.

The smallest country in Latin America has an extensive catalogue of martyrs. Foremost is Blessed Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered in 1980 while saying Mass. At his beatification May 23, 2015, Pope Francis said the archbishop “paid particular attention to the poor and the marginalized. He knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel in communion with the whole Church.”

During the conflict, when troops of the extreme right government fought leftist insurgents, all the warring parties committed war crimes. There was oppression and injustice across the board. For example, labor unions were banned and “it was dangerous to support farmers,” Father O’Nuanain told international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

He continued: “the clergy was completely divided. It was very sad because many politicized the Gospel. A strong minority supported Bishop Romero and his fight for farmers’ rights. But another strong minority opposed this stance. Still others did not take a clear stance. But all of us who fought for the dignity of the poor were threatened and persecuted. I just did not want to be tortured before I died.”

The missionary is coordinating the research project, which is entitled “Witnesses of the Gospel.” So far, five books have already been published, with another nine in the works—each one documenting the story of martyrs in a different province of the country. “Looking back on and reappraising the past, we want to pay tribute to and honor the martyrs,” said the 73-year-old Franciscan.

The project has already compiled more than 800 testimonies from relatives or friends of those were murdered. An example is the story of Noé Arsenio Portillo López, a 22-year-old catechist who was kidnapped, along leaving Mass. He was tortured for three days. “His limbs were severed from his body one after the other, before he finally was decapitated;” thus is his fate recorded.

ACN has been helping to fund the project. Marco Mencaglia, who oversees ACN grants for Church projects in El Salvador, said that the goal is “reappraise history, far away from all resentment. We would like to promote a real peace. We stand with the Church of El Salvador in showing that that the simple and silent act of bearing witness of by thousands of believers is far stronger than the terrible violence they suffered.”

Archishop Oscar Romero

Iraqi Christians are racing against time

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 09:24

If they don't soon reclaim their homes on the Nineveh Plains, Christianity in Iraq will be at grave risk

By Joop Koopman

BEFORE ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014, driving more than 100,000 Christians into exile in Kurdistan, some 5,000 Syriac-Catholic families made their homes on ancient ancestral land in the town of Qaraqosh.

More than half of those families have school-age children, and international agencies have repaired the damage done to schools suffered during the ISIS occupation. The schools are ready to welcome the children to the new academic year. But the great challenge is that many of the families’ homes still await repair or rebuilding.

Syriac-Catholic Father Georges Jahola, who represents his Church on the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), put it bluntly in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “if their homes are not ready for families to move back in by September and the start of the school year, many of the Christians might well decide to go elsewhere—this time leaving Iraq for good.”



To-date, 600 families have been able to move back into their homes in Qaraqosh; ACN helped establish the NRC so that the Syriac-Catholic, Syriac-Orthodox and the Chaldean Churches could join forces in paving the way for the return of Christians to the nine major Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains. ACN Has funded the repair of close to 160 home to-date. Overall numbers remain dangerously low; for example, in the town of Bartella, just 24 Syriac-Orthodox families have returned to their former homes, while more than 600 families have not been able or willing to make the move back to that community yet.

Close to 13,000 homes across the Nineveh Plains remain to be repaired or rebuilt, not to mention the major work that needs to be done throughout the region to restore the water and electricity supply. Meanwhile, some 90,000 Christians are still living as IDPs in Kurdistan.

Beyond the work of reconstruction there are significant security concerns. ISIS may be largely ousted from Iraq, but Sunni-Shiite tension remains and may burst into renewed violence, putting Christians and other minorities in harm’s way once again. There is also the risk that Baghdad and Kurdistan may clash on the Nineveh Plains if the Kurdish Regional Government declares its dependence and secedes from Iraq.

On the Nineveh Plains, schools beckon families and their children as does the prospect of new life marked by peace and stability. However, Western powers must make a major contribution to make the Christians’ hopes a reality.

“Christians and other religious minorities count on the Western governments—and the US in particular,” ACNUSA Chairman George Marlin wrote last week, “not only to help fund the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plains abut also to use their powers and influence to get both Baghdad and Kurdistan to guarantee the security of all minorities and to ensure their equality of citizenship, including their property rights and freedom of worship.

Failing that, a dark history will repeat itself. “The West must act now,” Marlin said, adding: “For if a significant number of Christians does not return to the Nineveh Plains very soon, and the power vacuum persists into 2018, the hopes for an enduring renaissance of Christianity in Iraq may be dashed forever.”

To-date ACN has spent approximately $620,000 on the reconstruction of Christian family homes in eight towns on the Nineveh plains, as well as the repair and refurnishing of a convent of Dominican Sisters in Qaraqosh and the reconstruction of St. George’s Church serving Chaldean faithful in the town of Teleskuf.

Meanwhile, ACN is spending some $1M to pay rent for IDP families remaining in Erbil from July through September 2017, plus an additional $700,000 on food aid for the families, covering their needs through August 2017.

ACN's commitment on both fronts is ongoing.

Father Georges Jahola; ACN photo

 

Help for those orphaned and widowed by Boko Haram in Nigeria

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 13:59

"They took hold of my husband and told him to convert to Islam. When he refused, he was slaughtered in front of my eyes."

By Maria Lozano

THE SPECTER of Boko Haram may have fallen from the headlines, but a painful echo of its reign of terror in northeastern Nigeria endures. The group mainly killed men, leaving behind countless widows and orphans in dire straits.

There are 5,000 women who lost their husbands and 15,000 children who lost their fathers who are cared for by the Diocese of Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was first founded and which was hardest hit by its merciless rampages. A delegation of international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently travelled to Maiduguri and spoke with some of the women.

“Boko Haram fighters came to my home early in the morning,” said Esther, speaking in the local Hausa language. She continued: “they started to loot everything, then they took hold of my husband and told him to convert to Islam. When he refused, he was slaughtered in front of my eyes.”

Rose’s husband “was shot right in the forehead” for refusing to convert to Islam. Grief overwhelmed Agnes, 40 years-old and the mother of nine, when she recounted how she was unable to bury her beloved husband. She said: “My husband was a builder; he was working outside of a house when Boko Haram surrounded all the people and gunned them down. The terrorists didn’t allow anybody to into the place to recover the bodies. No burial was possible, no funeral could be celebrated. They just left the bodies to rot there.”

These stories are but some examples of the thousands of traumatic experiences that Nigerian women in Maiduguri have endured in recent times. Kathrin, Helene, Justine, Juliette, Hanna…5000 women have a powerful story to tell; and although their faces appear composed, their hearts are full of pain. In order to assist these highly traumatized women, part of a $75,000 ACN grant to support the widows and orphans will go toward psychological counseling.

The widows are also trained in how to take care of their basic needs on their own, without the benefit of their husbands’ income. Most of the widows have more than six children to feed and educate. Most of them refuse to marry again because they still feel very close to their husbands. Bishop Oliver Doeme of Maiduguri has created the “St. Judith widow association,” with the purpose of tailoring aid for the particular circumstances of every individual in need. Another part of the ACN project covers school fees & the feeding of orphans and semi-orphans.

The three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa lie at the center of Boko Haram activities. The Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri covers two and half of these states. Since 2009, more than 200 churches and mission stations, numerous rectories, 25 schools, three hospitals, three convents, countless shops, homes and business centers have been destroyed by Boko Haram.Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people, while 26 million people have suffered indirectly from the conflict and 2.3 million children and youth have been deprived of access to education.

Nigerian widows whose husbands were killed by Boko Haram; ACN photo

In Nigeria, deadly violence hits faithful at Mass

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 13:38

"This attack is terribly inhuman and barbaric and we condemn the killings wholeheartedly."

By ACN staff

ARMED thugs drove their vehicle onto a parish compound early Sunday Aug 6, 2017, entered the church where faithful were gathered for 6AM Mass and opened fire. The target was a drug lord, who was absent. Instead, thirteen innocent worshippers were killed and 26 were gravely wounded among hundreds present.

The bloody incident took place in the Church of St. Philippe in the town of Ozubulu, Anambra State, in southern Nigeria.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin sent a telegram to the local ordinary, Bishop Hilary Paoul Odili Okeke of Nnewi, conveying Pope Francis’s condolences. The message said that the Pope was “deeply saddened” for the victims of the “violent attack.”

Bishop Okeke, who read the telegram to the congregation at Mass in St. Philippe’s Church the day after the killings, told international Catholic papal agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that his faithful were “deeply touched by the gesture of the Pope to comfort them at such a tragic time.”

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, told Vatican Radio that “this attack is terribly inhuman and barbaric and we condemn the killings wholeheartedly.”

Tribal conflict fueled and worsened by drug trafficking has held a grip on Ozubulu and other towns in Anambra State. It is another dimension of the endemic hardships besetting a country struggling with poverty, corruption at all levels of society, the aftermath of the reign of Islamist terror in northeastern Nigeria and ongoing jihadist aggression against Christians in the country’s north and so-called Middle Belt.

“Aid to the Church in Need condemns in the strongest possible terms any attack that takes place in a house of worship,” said Edward Clancy, ACNUSA director of outreach, “and we join the Pope in solidarity and prayer for the victims of this senseless violence.” He added: “The Nigerian Church’s overriding objective is to create a culture of peace, a culture of life—its mission is to heal and protect all citizens.”

“Despite these attacks, Catholics in Nigeria will continue to be strong and committed Christians,” said Archbishop Kaigama. He concluded: “We urge them to be ready and willing to continue to show their commitment to Jesus through a life of witness.”

 

On Iraq's Nineveh Plains, a Christian village is coming back to life

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 14:15

"There is water and electricity and the Church is helping us. It is really wonderful to be able to live here again."

By Daniele Piccini

BARTELLA, a Christian village on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, was the first of the region’s communities to be liberated from the grip of ISIS, freed in fall 2016.
It was home to 3,400 Christian families before ISIS captured the community. Recently, after three years of exile in Kurdistan, the first six Syriac-Orthodox families have returned to their newly restored homes.

ISIS wreaked havoc in Bartell. More than 90 homes were completely destroyed, some 360 were badly damaged by fire and another more than 1300 homes suffered varying degrees of damage. To-date, Aid to the Church in Need, the international Catholic charity—working with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC)—has restored 17 homes in the village. Once funding is secured, another 150 homes are due to be worked on.

The village infrastructure needs repair too. However, “the water network is slowly being brought into service again,” Noor Sabah Dana, NRC engineer, told ACN. He added: “there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs, and sometimes the network breaks down completely. There is a municipal water tank, which serves other villages as well and. Electricity is also coming back slowly, though there are regular power failures, especially interruptions caused by the repair work.”

The municipal administration is repairing the streets and a group of garbage collectors is cleaning up trash and debris

These are small miracles for a village still deeply scarred by the jihadist occupation. Still, many of the community’s former residents, having spent three years as IDPs in Kurdistan, are eager to return home. “At least 200 families come to Bartella from Erbil every day to clean their houses and try make them habitable again,” Noor Sabah Dana reported. “The families come here to clean their flats and clear them out; then they call the Committee to appraise their homes and provide an estimate for the damages. Then the restoration process can begin,” the engineer explained.

“After everything that happened, we returned to this house and asked the Church in Bartella for help,” explained Mark Matti Ishaq Zora, the son of a local farmer who is the owner of the house. He said: “A team of experts came and appraised all that was necessary: the paintwork, the electrical installations, the doors and windows, the water pipes.

“This is our city, our life, our history. Besides, in Kurdistan we struggling with difficult economic conditions. Food and rent are expensive. That is why I would like to tell all the families from Bartella to come back here. There is water and electricity and the Church is helping us. It is really wonderful to be able to live here again.”

Down the block, Nohe Ishaq Sliman, another home owner, chimes in: “We are all returning to Bartella because this is our city. I have lived here since I was a child.

“I drank the waters of the Tigris River and work here as a farmer. I built this house myself. How can I leave? I thank our benefactors for the help in restoring my house. I could no longer pay 600 or 700 dollars a month for rent and leave this house standing empty. How could I not return? This is my city, I want to return and live here.”  

The challenges facing Christians on the Nineveh Plains are enormous: Currently there are still 14,000 families who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil (approximately 90,000 people); nearly 13,000 homes have to be repaired or rebuilt; there are security concerns in the villages; there is Kurdish-Iraqi political manoeuvring on the ground; there are massive infrastructure concerns (water, electricity, roads, schools and clinics); and, most urgently, the IDPs in Erbil will continue to need food aid as well as help paying the rent, pending their hoped-for eventual return to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.

At this writing, 342 properties are being renovated, in part through funding by ACN. Since the crisis began, ACN has provided ongoing support to the Christian refugees in northern Iraq. To date, close to $35M has been donated for emergency aid, including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.

Members of the Zora family back in Bartella; ACN photo

Catholic schools are pillar of the Church in Sudan

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 10:13

"Many of the children would spend the whole day roaming around the streets if they didn't come to us in school. Their parents show little concern for them."

By Oliver Maksan

DUST and mud brick houses everywhere—as far as the eye can see. The houses are indistinguishable in color from the ground on which they stand. Trees are few and far between. The road leading northwards from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum shimmers in the burning heat. The temperature is tops 110 degrees, according to the thermometer. At a certain point the car turns off into an unpaved road with deep potholes, entering a residential suburb.

“Welcome to the St. Kizito School of Dar es Salaam,” says our host, Father Daniele, as we stand in the courtyard of the school, which is named after the youngest of the Ugandan martyrs. This Italian priest is a member of the clergy of the Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum. His fluent Arabic enables him to communicate with the people of his parish in their own language.

“I belong to the Neo-Catechumenal Way and I studied at our seminary in Beirut. I‘ve been living in Sudan now for more than 10 years”—a move he has never regretted, ever, he tells his visitor from international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

“But it is an extremely difficult pastoral challenge for priests here,” he adds. This has to do more than anything with the life circumstances of his parishioners. Father Daniele explains: “They are totally uprooted people. The parishioners here are for the most part come from the Nuba mountains in the south of Sudan. Their lives there were marked by the customs and traditions of their villages. But here, far from their homeland, they are completely lost.”

Many of the people many years ago came to the Khartoum area, in search of work or in order to escape the fighting in their homeland. But most of them can only survive as day laborers, and this eats away at the men‘s sense of self-worth.

“Many of them simply drift around idly when they don‘t have any work,” says Father Daniele, and many have no work at all. “In their traditional view of themselves, they are herders and warriors. But since there is no fighting no herding to be done here, all the work falls on the shoulders of the women, he adds.

Unlike 90 percent of the Sudanese people who are Sunni Muslims, who are Sunni Muslims, the people of the Nuba Mountains are Christians. Owing to the fact that the Christian faith did not arrive in Sudan until the 19th century and is not deeply rooted, there are often syncretic tendencies, with belief in magic rubbing shoulders with the Christian faith. For this reason Father Daniele attaches great importance to helping people grow in their faith. He says: “I want to show people above all that, despite their poverty, God loves them—and each of them individually.”

This is not always easy to understand for people imbued with a tribal way of thinking, he explains. But at least he has no concerns about church attendance. “The people come in large numbers to church. On Sundays our church is full,” tells us. ACN helped to pay for its construction.

“It is extremely important that the church be a beautiful and worthy place,” Father Daniele stresses, “as it is undoubtedly the most beautiful place in the lives of these people, who otherwise know only their own poverty stricken huts and homes.“

Father Daniele has a particular concern for the children and he parish school is his most important resource in this respect. “Many of the children would spend the whole day roaming around the streets if they didn‘t come to us in school. Their parents show little concern for them. Attention, and even tenderness, is something most of them have never experienced, and above all not from their fathers.”

Father Daniele works hard to convey to the children a sense of their own self-worth. He says: “We want to show them that they are respected, precious people, loved by God. We do so by listening to each one of them and showing them respect.”

Precisely because the circumstances of the children are so difficult and their families so large and so poor—eight children or more is by no means unusual—the priest places great hope in the schools, saying that, “however modest our means are here, without education the children will have no chance of a better life.”

Indeed, the Catholic school system is one of the pillars of small Catholic Church in Sudan. For one Church official– who requested that his name not be used – the Church educational system is crucially important. The official explains: “Our schools gain us acceptance among the majority Muslim community, and above all with the state.

"The state is strongly Islamic, but—because of the rapid population growth, the number of people moving into cities and limited public resources--its budget is overstretched and insufficient to provide enough schools. Hence, the government is happy to see the Church involved. As a Church we maintain almost 20 public schools in the city of Khartoum alone, and permission to build schools—unlike permission to construct churches—is something that is always granted to us.”

The schools are attended both by Christians and by Muslims. The Church official acknowledges that the quality of the schools is not the best. He says: “after all, we hardly have money for teachers and books, and nor do our students.” But no pupil is refused admittance, even if he or she cannot afford the school fees. “For the children of the poorest families the school is the only possibility of bringing a little order into their lives,” the official stresses.

ACN is committed to support the Catholic schools in Sudan. “The Church in Sudan has asked us for help,” says Christine du Coudray-Wiehe, who oversees projects in Sudan. She adds: “It is an urgent necessity to respond, as the majority of the pupils are from Catholic families from southern Sudan. It is vital for these families that their children be able to attend a Christian school—for this is the only way we can prevent them from being Catholics at home and Muslims at school.”

Students of St. Kizito school; ACN photos

In Bangladesh, Church stands up for ethnic minorities

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 07:52

"When the ethnic minorities suffer, the Church also suffers, for 60 percent of our Catholic faithful belong to this part of the population."

By Eva-Maria Kolmann 

NEW YORK—The Catholic Church in Bangladesh is speaking up for the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities, bemoaning the fact that ethnic and religious minorities are not explicitly mentioned in the nation’s constitution.

Archbishop Moses Costa of Chittagong told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that “the government does not acknowledge their rightful existence and ignores them, so that they have hardly any possibility” of bettering their position in society.

He added that minorities are often discriminated against in the workplace, even in some schools, since they do not speak the national language—and “when the ethnic minorities suffer, the Church also suffers, for 60 percent of our Catholic faithful belong to this part of the population,” the bishop said. He noted that he Catholic Church is the only institution standing up for the rights and human dignity of the minorities.

Archbishop Costa described how, in the wake of severe flooding last year in the so-called Chittagong Hill Tracts, a mountainous province within his archdiocese, the government refused to aid the ethnic minorities living there and denied the existence of the crisis. He also criticized the exploitation of the tribal peoples in the ship-breaking yards of Chittagong Harbor, where unseaworthy ships are broken up into their component parts for reuse in other ways. For example, the steel components are dismantled and used as structural steel in buildings.

“This work is carried out under very hazardous conditions and claims innumerable human lives. But I am not permitted to visit this place, because the authorities have refused me permission,” the archbishop charged.

Asked about the attacks on Christians and on Church properties which have been escalating in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, the archbishop said that a mixture of political and religious motives fuel the violence.

On the one hand, there often attempts to unjustly gain possession of land and properties belonging to the tribal peoples, who are often Christians; however, the prelate said that some attacks have a religious aspect, a factor that is becoming more pronounced. There are a many different Islamic groups and organizations in Bangladesh.

“Last year a thousand Bengalis attacked a parish in Chittagong, because many miles away two business men had been killed and we Christians were accused of having had something to do with it,” the archbishop said, adding that the situation in Chittagong is “difficult and dangerous.”

However, there are also reasons for Catholics to rejoice. When Pope Francis in November 2016 made Archbishop Patrick D‘Rozario of Dhaka a cardinal, not only were Catholics “overcome with joy,” but even the non-Christian population was “very happy,” Archbishop Costa reported. The government also appreciated that “the Pope was according the country a special degree of recognition and honor.”

That respect was also evident when the Diocese of Chittagong was elevated to become an archdiocese in February 2017.

Thanks to the two events, “the Catholic Church was given greater importance” in the country, he said. “Generally speaking, and despite its numerically small size, the Church in Bangladesh makes a significant contribution to the educational system through its schools and is likewise very active in the area of healthcare. It is widely respected by many people as a result,” said Archbishop Costa.

Muslims account for almost 90 percent of the population of Bangladesh, 156 million with Hindus making up the second largest religious group at 9.5 percent. There are 270,000 Catholics in the country.

Last year ACN gave around 560,000 Euros in support for the Catholic Church in Bangladesh.

 Archbishop Costa with women religious; ACN photo

 

 

In Aleppo, the dead await final resting place

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 10:27

"Doors and gravestones were also pillaged and several graves were opened."

By Josué Villalón 

 

THE NEIGHBORHOOD of Sheikh Maqsood sits on a hill on the north-western outskirts of Aleppo. It was the site of fierce battles between Kurdish troops and various Islamist militia. The Kurds eventually prevailed. And even today Kurdish troops block civilians and even Syrian security forces from entering the area.

The neighbourhood is also home to a number of Christian cemeteries serving various Churches. They are located on at the foot of Jabal Al-Saydé (Mountain of St. Mary). They have been closed for years—with some of them damaged by bombs or looting.

Meanwhile, there are many dead still awaiting their proper burial. “We would like to give our dear departed a dignified and sacred burial,” said Father Moses Alkhassi, vicar general of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo and Alexandretta, whose territory extends across Syria and Turkey.

“Several bombs were dropped on our cemetery, which destroyed large parts of it,” he told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “Doors and gravestones were also pillaged and several graves were opened,” he added.

“Our archdiocese has suffered greatly: we have lost several churches. Furthermore, at the very beginning of the war, our Metropolitan Boutros Yazigi was kidnapped together along with the local Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim. We still don’t know where the two of them are,” the priest said.

The number of Christians from all denominations that are still awaiting a dignified burial in the various cemeteries totals 2461. Up until now, their mortal remains have been interred on a piece of property that was provided by the Syrian government. It costs about $45 to exhume and re-bury the remains of one person.

ACN has agreed to provide close to $50,000 to repair cemeteries, in particular the Greek Orthodox cemetery—which sustained the most damage—and to arrange for the transfer to Jabal Al-Saydé of the remains of all Orthodox and Catholic Christians of various rites who died in Aleppo between April 2013 and December 2016.

Greek Orhodox cemetery of Aleppo; ACN photo

Prelate reclaims his Archdiocese of Mosul

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 15:00

"People will return from time to time to check on their houses, but at the moment one cannot permanently stay in Mosul."

Now that Mosul has been recaptured from ISIS, will Christians be able to return to their homes there soon? It’s too soon to tell, according to Syriac-Catholic Archbishop Petros Mouche of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. He spoke with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

By Olivier Labesse

How did you experience the liberation of Mosul?

As a sign of hope for us Christians. ISIS was driven off. I hope that the attitude of the people will change. The destruction in Mosul occurred on an enormous scale. For us Syriac-Catholic Christians in Iraq, liberation is of course a cause for great joy because the bulk my diocese is comprised by Mosul and Qaraqosh and environs. Today, Mosul is completely destroyed. Officially, all parts of the city have been liberated, even though there are still militants hiding in a number of places. But they will soon be found and captured.

Everything needs to be rebuilt. When will the Christians be able to return to Mosul?

Perhaps in a few years. People will return from time to time to check on their houses, but at the moment one cannot permanently stay in Mosul. However, many people can return to the Nineveh Plains.  A good number of families have already arrived there. Some have found work or started restaurants, shops and businesses. It takes a lot of courage to start from scratch again!

Apart from military measures, how can Islamic fundamentalism be combated?

That is exactly what makes it so difficult: you have to be able to affect a change in attitude. In view of the peculiar ideology of these jihadist groups, one has to understand that war is not a solution. We have to be able to live together. We have always lived together and this never was a problem. These recent events have given rise to great hope: that life will begin all over again and that the people will learn how to live together. We are all sick of war. Wars have been fought in Iraq off and on since 1958. We have to learn how to live in peace.

What is your message to donors in the West?

I would of course like to express my heartfelt thanks because their presence is always felt among us and in our diaspora. With their support, we will be able to rebuild our houses. It is a great mercy that we can count on their help. After all, the Syriac-Catholic Christians were the hardest-hit group. They represent 60 percent of those who fled the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014, when ISIS invaded the region. But there will always be help.

The challenges facing Christians on the Nineveh Plains are enormous: Currently there are still 14,000 families who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil (approximately 90,000 people); nearly 13,000 homes have to be repaired or rebuilt; there are security concerns in the villages; there is Kurdish-Iraqi political manoeuvring on the ground; there are massive infrastructure concerns (water, electricity, roads, schools and clinics; and, most urgently, the IDPs in Erbil will continue to need food aid as well as help paying the rent, pending their hoped-for eventual return to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.

To-date, 599 families have returned to the Nineveh Plains and 342 properties are being renovated, in part through funding by ACN. Since the crisis began, ACN has provided ongoing support to the Christian refugees in northern Iraq. To date, close to $35M has been donated for emergency aid, including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.

Archbishop Mouche; ACN photo

Rowing against the current in Damascus

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 14:43

Such an old Apostolic Church, rooted in tradition and customs--can she take steps towards a new type of Christian testimony?

By Archbishop Samir Nassar

THIS seventh year of Syria’s civil war is reaping the bitter fruit of successive violence storms that have shattered Syrian society’s peace. Here are the main three victims: families, young people and the Church.

Shattered families: This basic unit of Syrian society, which had previously saved its country in crisis, has lost its identity. Dispersed, deprived of resources, lacking shelter, grieving, ravaged by disease, the elderly—the heads of the family in the past—are increasingly isolated and find no assistance whatsoever.

Forced to row against the current during these seven years of violence, can these shattered and fragile families keep standing?

Tormented young people: In the past, young people were the strength of our society; today they’re divided between the battlefield fronts of war and trying to escape the massive and prolonged military service conscription that’s part of the country’s general mobilization. Great numbers of young people leave the country, leaving a huge emptiness behind.

Their absence is felt in the Syrian economy which suffers from a pronounced shortage of manual labor and is greatly weakened. How can we guarantee the survival of a country deprived of its active workforce?

A Church that questions herself: There hasn’t been one single baptism or marriage in the last eight months. This drop in the administration of the sacraments has been evident for five years now. The absence of young people has big repercussions for parish life.

Sunday liturgies, catechism, First Communion and parish activities across the board have diminished considerably. This has contributed to the exodus of priests who have seen their pastoral work reduced to a minimal level. The are extremely discouraged.

Can’t we see in these changes the beginning of a twilight?

This structural mutations invite us to question ourselves concerning the pastoral traditions.

Such an old Apostolic Church, rooted in tradition and customs—can she take steps towards a new type of Christian testimony?

In order to save the last witnesses of the Gospel, our little Church relies on the Holy Spirit, who alone guide us toward a new Pentecost. COME SPIRIT OF LIGHT!

Damascus, July 18, 2017

 + Samir NASSAR

Maronite Archbishop of Damascus

Funeral in Damascus; ACN photo

Support the Formation of 16 Young Novices in Ukraine

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 09:02

Currently there are 16 young women in the novitiate, preparing to one day commit themselves permanently to the service of God and their fellow men. Will you give to support the formation of these young women?

In June of this year, the faithful of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church bade a sorrowful farewell to their late primate, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who died on May 31, 2017, at the age of 84. For 10 years, from 2001 to 2011, he had been the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome and which suffered severe persecution during Soviet times. Their sadness was shared by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) which supported the Ukrainian Catholics throughout Soviet times, when they were only able to live their faith underground.

The Cardinal was a close friend of Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of ACN, and wrote to him during his time as archbishop: “Today we can openly state that right up to the end of communism, ACN was the only Church organization that helped the Ukrainian Catholics and that you remain to this day the foremost benefactor of the Ukrainian Church.”

Cardinal Husar was very close to Father Werenfried and praised the courage with which he had dared, after the Second World War, to appeal to all people – including those who were former enemies – and call them to forgiveness and reconciliation. In one of his last meetings with representatives of ACN, in May 2015, he emphasized that Father Werenfried had been “a priest whose memory must be preserved,” adding that he was “a greater figure than Adenauer and other leading figures of the post-war era.”

During this last meeting with ACN, Cardinal Husar individually blessed each member of the delegation that had come to visit him. Executive President Johannes Freiherr Heereman of ACN later recalled: “It was deeply moving to receive his blessing on our departure. For every member of our delegation it was evident at the time at this was our last meeting in this world.”

“Already marked by fragile health, the Cardinal spoke with his profound spiritual clarity, giving us wise words regarding the mission of our charity, the character of our founder and his own personal concern for the future of young people. This voice, which was listened to attentively by innumerable people in Ukraine and throughout the world, and by no means only by Catholics, will not be extinguished even by the death of the body.”

The Sisters of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Lord and the Holy Virgin of Matará, who are based in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine, are particularly involved in working with those young people for whom the late Cardinal expressed such deep concern. They provide catechetical and religious instruction, organize retreat days and help young people to discern their vocation in life. They also care for orphans and for the sick and elderly, who often suffer great need in Ukraine.

In many hearts their work falls on fruitful soil, so that a number of young women now wish to join them. Whereas in the West many of the religious congregations are facing a grave lack of vocations, in Ukraine the face of the Handmaids is very much a youthful one.

Currently there are 16 young women in the novitiate, preparing to one day commit themselves permanently to the service of God and their fellow men. ACN is helping towards the cost of their training, with a contribution of $3,400.

Will you give to support the formation of these young novices in Ukraine?


Code: 438-05-79

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Aid to the Church in Need commits to invest your funds where they will have the greatest impact for the Church that we serve. Funds donated to Aid to the Church in Need’s projects will be used towards the greatest need in our programs to help keep the Faith alive.

Support 38 Religious Sisters Serving the Poorest of the Poor in Argentina

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 08:56

These Sisters visit families in the villages, care for the sick and elderly, pray with the people and manage to introduce a little light and laughter into their poverty stricken homes. Will you help support them?

For Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), suffering and need were never an abstract problem. For him, it was always about the individual, a person with a face and a name, a child of God. It is easy to feel no personal involvement with a statistic, and a mere number means little to us. But the fate of an individual person with a face and a name is not so easy to distance ourselves from, for it touches us inwardly, is a direct appeal to us personally.

On his many travels around the world, Father Werenfried encountered so many people living in poverty and destitution, people in whom he saw God Himself as weeping. They had names – Anna, Pablo and John, Maria and Miguel. He had looked them in the eyes, and what he had seen was for him a cry for help.

Father Werenfried asked himself – and all of us – the question: “How is it that we are so comfortably situated? These people live beneath the same sun and the same stars as we do. God also created them on the sixth day, to be kings of creation. Where then is their kingdom? This trampling of their human dignity is a mortal sin against nature, a crying injustice. And we, too, will personally share in this injustice if we do not do everything in our power to banish it from the world – everything in our power!”

Not too many people know that there are regions in Argentina where people live in the direst poverty. One such region is a diocese with the long name of “San Roque de Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña.” It is one of the poorest dioceses in the country and this seemingly dry statistic is in reality a human crisis for those involved. Some of these people live in dirty, damp, unhealthy hovels or even under plastic sheeting. There are sick people barely being cared for, emaciated children whom you would more readily expect to see in Africa, living off little more than a little flour moistened in water, gaunt-looking mothers…

The diocese covers a vast area of over 27,000 square miles in the north of the country, characterized mainly by savanna and dry forest land. It is home to the descendants of various indigenous tribes who in the past used to live as nomads. Many still live as hunter gatherers. Now the large Agro industries, which are encroaching ever further on their traditional territories, are increasingly restricting their traditional lifestyle, using up the forest and establishing vast soya bean plantations. At the same time the goats and cattle of settlers and small farmers are eating the forest bare.

The Catholic Church is virtually the only organization supporting these people, but the distances are huge and there are only very few priests. This makes the support of religious Sisters absolutely vital. At present there are 38 religious Sisters from various different congregations working in the diocese. They support the people in many ways and bring home to them the fact that they are also children of God. They visit the families in the villages, care for the sick and elderly, pray with the people and, while bringing them this urgent and vital help, they at the same time manage to introduce a little light and laughter into their poverty stricken homes.

We regularly help these Sisters and this year once again we plan to support them in their modest lifestyle, for all the work that they do is offered entirely free of charge. We have promised a total of $19,500 to support their life and ministry – just $500 per Sister for an entire year.

Will you give to support these religious Sisters as they serve the poorest of the poor in Argentina?

We are sure they will remember you in their grateful prayers.


Code: 209-05-39

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Aid to the Church in Need commits to invest your funds where they will have the greatest impact for the Church that we serve. Funds donated to Aid to the Church in Need’s projects will be used towards the greatest need in our programs to help keep the Faith alive.

Pastoral care for Poor Christian Couples and Families in Pakistan

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 08:41

It is the bishop's deepest wish to be able to help these families hold together in difficult circumstances and live their Christian faith in such a way that peace, harmony and love can prevail within them. Can you help?

The Diocese of Hyderabad is in the south of Pakistan and covers over 50,000 square miles. In this vast area, there are only some 50,000 Catholics among a general Muslim population of 28 million. Most of the Catholics in this region belong to the ethnic minorities; many are former Hindus. They find themselves on the very bottom rung of society and are often condemned to work as day laborers in the fields of the big landowners or as brick makers in the brick furnaces. This leaves them almost entirely at the mercy of their wealthy masters. They also perform such menial tasks as street sweepers or toilet cleaners in the towns.

These poor, Catholic workers are paid only irregularly, sometimes more, sometimes less, and entire families can quickly fall into debt. If a family member falls ill or is put out of work, or if his master fails to pay his wages, then the entire family is forced to borrow money, generally at extortionate interest rates. As a result the family falls ever deeper into debt and into a vicious spiral of poverty and dependency. Many families become trapped for generations in this cycle of debt slavery. It is a very heavy burden and crushes many people.

Bishop Samson Shukardin writes: “Just to put something on the table each day is a daily battle and a daily reality for these families. The spiral of poverty, unemployment and indebtedness drives many into drug addiction and other forms of dependency and brings upon their families a veritable plague of conflict, arguments, discord and in many cases domestic violence.”

Given this situation, it is the bishop’s deepest wish to be able to help these families to hold together in these difficult circumstances and live their Christian faith in such a way that peace, harmony and love can prevail within them. To this end, he has established a program to strengthen and support married couples and their families.

Under the direction of a religious Sister who has been working for 25 years in the family apostolate and with the help of trained and experienced married couples, courses and meetings are being offered in all 17 parishes of the diocese. These courses are for young couples about to be engaged, for married couples in the process of establishing their family and for family groups in general. How to be good parents? How can the family pray together? How can couples learn how to talk together and respect each other? How can we establish a Christian marriage and a Christian family life, based on the Sacraments? The program includes these and many other questions.

The bishop has written to us to express his support. “They have my full backing and support,” he writes, “since the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and of the Church. Only if we nurture the Christian life of families and support them pastorally will the Church be faithful to her mission as ‘a light to the nations.’”

We have promised $14,500 for the support of these courses for families and married couples in the 17 parishes of the diocese.

Will you give to provide spiritual support for these poor Christian families as they struggle to learn and live their faith under very difficult circumstances in Pakistan?


Code: 328-08-49

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Aid to the Church in Need commits to invest your funds where they will have the greatest impact for the Church that we serve. Funds donated to Aid to the Church in Need’s projects will be used towards the greatest need in our programs to help keep the Faith alive.

Help Holy Spirit Fathers with their Pastoral Work in an Underdeveloped Region of Ethiopia

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 08:27

Will you give to help these Holy Spirit Fathers better serve and develop this poor region of Ethiopia? We are sure they will gratefully remember you in their prayers.

In many ways the Catholic Church is in her infancy in the far south of Ethiopia, bordering Kenya. Catholic missionaries only arrived in the region for the first time 45 years ago, but the Holy Spirit Fathers – the Spiritans – who work in this area have now established three parishes and several schools.

The Spiritans work with the Borana people. While traditionally nomads, some have recently become more permanently settled since the missionaries sank boreholes and made wells for the people, who have now settled nearby. Many still continue to live a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place with their flocks of cattle in search of grazing lands.

As this is a very arid region, water is a matter of life or death. As a result, the Borana people occasionally come into conflict with members of other tribes when the water supply dwindles and grazing become scarce, or where one tribe drives its herds onto the territory of another.

Since the Catholic Church has been present in the region there have been fewer such conflicts. In the past there was an unwritten law whereby the men had to show courage by fighting. If one‘s opponent drew his weapon, then he too had to be ready to fight. Now things have changed to some extent, since the tribesmen who have embraced Christianity are now immediately ready to make peace.

For the women, too, the presence of the Church has changed their lives for the better. In the tradition of the Borana people, a girl never “marries” but “is married.” She is never even asked for her consent to the marriage, and in the past generally there was no sense of the dignity of the woman. If a girl should fall pregnant before the marriage, she would be sold off to an enemy tribe. Now the Catholic Church is teaching a different understanding of marriage, teaching that both man and woman have an equal dignity in the sight of God.

There is also growing interest in education among the people. The Church is encouraging parents to realize that a school education is just as important for girls as for boys. The Holy Spirit Fathers have accordingly opened several schools in this region. Initially the people were mistrustful, but gradually they have come to understand that education can help them to improve their lives and better understand their own rights and dignity. Still more importantly, they can deepen their understanding of their newfound faith by reading the Bible and other religious writings.

There is great interest in Christianity, especially among the children and young people, and the Holy Spirit Fathers want to intensify their work. For example, they organize meetings with young people from other tribes. In this remote and underdeveloped region it is usually very rare for young people to be able to meet and talk with young people of other tribal groups. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country where over 80 different ethnic groups rub shoulders and speak as many languages, and in many cases also belong to different religious groups, so meeting is a crucially important experience. It is not unusual for young people to wander away from their own remote and underdeveloped regions into other areas, or into the towns and cities, and then they can face major problems coming to terms with what is to them an entirely alien environment.

It is also important for the adults to be carefully accompanied on their path of faith. Many of those who are baptized are already married according to traditional tribal customs. When they embrace Christianity, they are helped to prepare for a Christian marriage in church, so that they can live their lives in a truly Christian spirit. It is clearly seen that the number of the Catholic faithful who attend Holy Mass and receive Holy Communion increases considerably as a result of these marriage preparation programs. The Fathers also try as often as possible to visit and accompany the sick and the handicapped, who cannot get to church, and to give them the opportunity to receive Holy Communion and, where appropriate, the Sacrament of the sick.

The Holy Spirit Fathers are also trying to improve the training of the lay catechists who visit the people in their villages and help teach the Faith to them, since it is clearly important for them to have a sound understanding of the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, so that they in turn can guide others to the faith and help them to deepen their faith life.

We have promised the Fathers $5,500 so that they can deepen and intensify their varied and vital pastoral outreach in this area of primary evangelization.

Will you give to help these Holy Spirit Fathers better serve and develop this poor region of Ethiopia?

We are sure they will gratefully remember you in their prayers.


Code: 118-04-49

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Aid to the Church in Need commits to invest your funds where they will have the greatest impact for the Church that we serve. Funds donated to Aid to the Church in Need’s projects will be used towards the greatest need in our programs to help keep the Faith alive.

ACN funds slate of new projects to help Christians in Syria

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 11:10

With aid funneled through local Churches, vulnerable members of the Muslim population are also among the beneficiaries.

By Maria Lozano

NEW YORK—To bring relief to the traumatized Christian community in Syria, international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has committed to funding 32 projects for a total of more than $1M.

With a focus on major urban centers like Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, the projects are designed to shore up humanitarian and pastoral resources on behalf of those Christians who have remained in Syria during six years of war. With aid funneled through local Churches, vulnerable members of the Muslim population are also among the beneficiaries.

Syria has dropped from the news headlines to a certain extent, but the situation in the country remains extremely difficult. There is massive destruction to the country’s infrastructure and the trauma of brutal warfare has left people—especially the young—with deep psychological scars, which are causing anguish, sickness and even death. The ACN initiatives are designed especially to restore people’s sense of hope.

A number of projects target children and young people. They include help for two Christian badly damaged schools in Aleppo run by religious sisters, one of which also houses an orphanage. The number of pupils at the schools has fallen sharply, since many families have fled or emigrated, and those who are left cannot afford to pay for their children’s schooling.

Almost 70 percent of population of the city are suffering grave poverty, having to survive on two dollars a day or less. The school would have to be closed if it were not for the infusion of aid by ACN. This way, the 145 children still studying there—down from a pre-war total of 1000—can continue their education, boosting their families’ spirits and willingness to remain in Aleppo.

Many young people are suffering severely from a sense of anxiety, isolation and uncertainty about their future. Limited access to quality education is a significant factor in their somber outlook. ACN is helping to create a more normal environment, giving the youth a chance to go outside and play after being confined for their homes for nearly four years of intensive bombing of Aleppo.

ACN is helping build a multi-purpose sports facility and basketball grounds, situated in locations that, before the war, were important meeting grounds for Armenian and other Christian Syrian youth.

Most of this new round of funding goes toward providing humanitarian assistance. The charity has pledged $250,000 to the female congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary to help them continue their food aid program that serves

 almost 2,200 displaced families in Al Hassakah and Aleppo. Similarly, in the south of the country, in the so-called Valley of the Christians, ACN is supporting two projects run by the Missionaries of Saint Paul. There will be monthly support until the end of the year for 250 students who could not otherwise continue studies. There will also be help for 340 families who are unable to pay their rent—which have shot up dramatically—and support for some 75 special-needs cases, such as widows and those wounded in the war.

In keeping with its fundamental mission, ACN is also caring for the people’s spiritual lives. For example, two Syriac Orthodox churches in the historic city of Sadat, site of atrocities against Christians committed by both the Al-Nusra front and ISIS. Today, little by little, Christians of one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world—and who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus—are returning to their homes and will be able to worship in the parish churches of St. Sarkis and St. George.

Many Syrian Christians sought refuge during the war in safer areas such as Latakia and Hama, with the result that the infrastructure of the local Churches in these towns has become too small or is in need of repair. On this score, too, ACN is coming to the rescue.

Christian youth in Aleppo; ACN photo

 

Another priest is murdered in Mexico

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 09:33

In 2016 Mexico was the most dangerous country in the world for priests. The nation earned the sad distinction for the ninth time in a row.

By Guadalupe Esquivas & Maria Lozano

ON July 6, 2017 Father Luis López Villa, the parish priest of San Isidro Labrador was found murdered in the city of Los Reyes La Paz in Mexico State. His body was found inside the rectory; his throat had been slit and his hands were tied. Father Lopez Villa was 73.

The bishops’ conference of Mexico has joined the Diocese of Nezahualcóyotl in expressing solidarity with the family and parish community of Father Lopez Villa. It also voiced its concern about the current wave of violence that continues to be directed against priests and religious. The country’s bishops urged Mexican authorities to investigate the crimes.

The murder of Luis López Villa from the diocese of Nezahualcóyotl is just one in a long line of priests in the country who have been murdered. According to the latest report by the Office of Special Investigations of the Catholic Multimedia Centre (CCM) on priests and religious murdered in Mexico on 6 July, already three murders have been recorded in 2017.

According to CCM, in 2016 Mexico was the most dangerous country in the world for priests. The nation earned the sad distinction for the ninth time in a row.

The CCM report has documented 66 assaults against members of the Catholic Church for the period from 1990 to 2017—60 of the incidents were described as heinous crimes. Two priests are still listed as missing. There were also two cases of thwarted abduction attempts. Among the assault victims were one cardinal, 44 priests, a deacon, four religious, nine laypersons and a Catholic journalist.

Eighteen priests have been murdered since the current government of President Peña Nieto came to power. This surpasses the 17 cases that were recorded during the six years of the presidency of Felipe Calderón.

Our Lady of Guadalupe; ACN photo

'We have lost an advocate on earth, but gained one in Heaven'

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 09:27

"The great work of ACN belongs among the spiritual movements that emerged in the Church after the disaster of the Second World War."

International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) mourns the July 5, 2017 passing of Cardinal Joachim Meisner. The former archbishop of Cologne was 83.

By ACN staff

CARDINAL Meisner shared a lifelong and intensive friendship with the founder of ACN, Father Werenfried van Straaten. For both of them, concern for the oppressed and suffering Church behind the Iron Curtain and worldwide was a matter of the heart. They were both joined by their love of and loyalty to the Pope, especially St. John Paul II. With him they collaborated intensively in their respective ways.

As a native of Silesia, Cardinal Meisner shared the fate of millions of Germans who were driven from their homeland. A fate that moved our founder Father Werenfried, exactly 70 years ago, to satisfy the bodily and spiritual hunger of the uprooted with a massive humanitarian and pastoral initiative.

 

As a 14-year-old in his diaspora in Thuringia, he heard for the first time of the “Bacon Priest,” as Father van Straaten was known. A Dutchman’s support for his former German enemies after a war, the scars of which had not yet healed, moved him so much that he cut out a photo of the founder of ACN and hung it on the wall of his bare room beside those of the bishops Alojzije Stepinac and József Mindszenty—both martyrs of communist oppression of the Church behind the Iron Curtain.

Looking back, Meisner once acknowledged: “The great work, ACN, is not firstly to be counted among the big relief charities of the Catholic Church in Europe, but rather it belongs among the spiritual movements that emerged in the Church after the disaster of the Second World War.”

When the young refugee Meisner became a priest and bishop of Berlin, serving under the dictatorship of East Germany, he and the “Bacon Priest” met frequently. Together they sought to aid the oppressed Church under communism and in many other regions of the world—as discretely as possible but as concretely as necessary.

When the Berlin Wall and barbed wire came down, Cardinal Meisner was already archbishop of Cologne. His joy at the regained freedom was mixed with anxieties about godlessness, moral arbitrariness and a materialism that neglects the essence of humanity. This insight, together with concern for the new evangelization of Europe, was a further unifying bond between Cardinal Meisner, Pope John Paul II and Father Werenfried

Every year until his retirement in 2014, the Archbishop celebrated a memorial Mass in Cologne Cathedral on the anniversary of Father Werenfried’s death. In one of these sermons he said: “God’s instruments are often poor and held in contempt. Almost no one knows their names. But they achieve great things when they have faith. With the grace of God we have discovered such a giant of God’s Realm as Father Werenfried.”

In 2016, Cardinal Meisner was the guest of ACN for the last time. At a day of encounter in Cologne he spoke about the meaning of the Marian apparitions of Fatima with regard to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This too was a subject that united him, as a former bishop of the divided city of Berlin, with the Pope from Poland and the “Bacon Priest” from the Netherlands. Many of the faithful hope that the fact of his death in the centenary year of Fatima represent marks his personal fulfilment of the promise in which he believed throughout his life.

Following the death of Father van Straaten in 2003, Joachim Cardinal Meisner requested a pen as “heirloom.” With it he wrote in ACN’s guestbook: “Do not become an authority that simply administers donors’ money for the recipients, but remain a movement that calls people to come closer to God and thus also closer to others. For every co-worker, their lives must not be separated into private and public spheres, such as even some politicians in Christian parties demand for themselves. … The Christian view of humanity knows no such differentiation.”

Cardinal Meisner; ACN photo

Mali: 'To secure peace we must start with our own family.'

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 13:27

"In two or three places on the border to Burkina Faso Christian communities have already been prevented from gathering for Mass."

In 2012, a military coup plunged the West African nation of Mali into chaos as jihadist militants threatened to overrun the nation. France troops restored order, particularly in the country’s south, with the north of Mali remaining fragile despite a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces. To bolster the local Church, Pope Frances last month named Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako the nation’s first cardinal. In an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Jonas Dembélé of Kayes discussed the situation in his nation.

By Olivier Labesse

How stable do you think the situation is in Mali following the most recent clashes between government troops and rebels in Bamako and Timbuktu?

Peace in Mali is still not secure but the events which are convulsing the do not affect people's everyday existence. There have been isolated attacks but this has not paralyzed daily life. In my diocese of Kayes in the west of Mali we lead a normal life and the priests are not under threat. Muslims and Christians are still engaged in a dialogue there, as they are in the rest of the country. The exceptions here are Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, where priests cannot freely enter. Apart from this, our missionary work can carry on as usual elsewhere in the country.

So in Mopti the Christians cannot freely follow their faith?

No, in Mopti life was already complicated for Christians in back 2013 and today Islamists even attack Muslims. In Gao on the other hand the faithful manage to hold Mass. But without priests, since these are refused access to the city.

In two or three places on the border to Burkina Faso Christian communities have already been prevented from gathering for Mass. This has been done by stopping them from ringing the bells and forcing them to close the church.

What is the relationship between the Church and the Malian government?

As ever the Church maintains good relations with government. It has committed itself energetically to the matter of schools, the health system and sustainable development. The population has responded positively to this because our efforts benefit without exception the entire population of Mali. The government has always sought collaboration with the Church and the bishops' conference.

Mali is a secular republic. But certain groups are still clearly trying to establish an Islamic state.

That's true. It's repeatedly stated that the Muslims represent the majority in Mali. And since we live in a democracy some people want to exploit this fact, on the principle: "We are the majority and why should we remain in a secular state when Muslims make up 95 percent of the Malian population?" But Mali decided on the separation of religion and state a long time ago. This decision didn't come from the Christians or adherents of the traditional religions. Although they are Muslims, even the Malian intellectuals know that in the modern-day world secularism is the essential condition for a more peaceful co-existence. But the politicians sometimes succumb to the temptation to orient themselves too much according to the interests of certain groups on whose votes they depend.

Has the Church traditionally had a good relationship with the Muslims?

Mali has offered an example of a well-functioning dialogue between Christians and Muslims for the whole of West Africa. But the Malian form of Islam is a more tolerant one. This is continuing but since 2008 we have been observing a gradual Arabization of Islam, and this makes the situation overall more difficult. In the villages you normally encounter families which include Christians, Muslims and adherents of the traditional religions. Unfortunately we can see today the growth of certain intolerant groups.

How do you assess the future of Mali? How can peace be established?

There is cause for hope. We are trying to make people aware of the fact that, if we wish to create peace, we will first have to start the process in our own families. Only then will we be able to continue with our efforts in our districts, villages and regions to enable peace to spread throughout the country. We also call on politicians to focus in particular on welfare of Malians and to give priority to the common good over the interests of individual groups who do not have peaceful intentions. There are individuals of good will who are already working in this direction with the support of the international community and the Economic Community of West African States. There are signs of improvement, but the process will take time.

Bishop Jonas Dembélé among his people; ACN photo

 

In Aleppo, Syria, a tentative sense of peace

Fri, 06/30/2017 - 11:43

"We all want the war to end. But when and how is a problem that no one knows how to resolve."

By Josué Villalón 

IN LATE December 2016, the forces allied to President Bashar al Assad took definitive control of the city of Aleppo. The situation remains fragile, just six months since the bombings ceased in this great northern city of Syria, the largest city in the country and its principal industrial center that once numbered more than 2 million inhabitants.

“Now there are no more bombings and the streets are safe,” Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. He added, however, that “unfortunately the situation is not going to change greatly. The war will continue. It appears that Syria will remain divided, as has happened in Iraq.”

Arriving in Aleppo from the south of the city, the scene is one of total devastation. The area close to the international airport and the southern and eastern suburbs appear to be almost completely destroyed. There is scarcely a single building that has not been hit by the bombs—evident scars of the combat that lasted for almost four and a half years. The atmosphere of total desertion is interrupted only by soldiers at the various checkpoints.

“We all want the war to end. But when and how is a problem that no one knows how to resolve,” says Father George Abou Khazen, the Latin apostolic vicar of Syria, a Franciscan priest of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans first arrived in Aleppo in 1238 and since then never left this land, committed to help the most needy, working in education and striving to sponsor dialogue between religions.

Father Khazen reports that relations between the various different Christian rites, and indeed with the Muslims also, have always been good. He said: “The Syrians are an open-minded people. The country is made up of a broad mosaic of 18 different ethnic and religious groups who have always managed to get along together well.”

One of the biggest problems is that the economic situation has not improved. The devaluation of the currency and the lack of work mean that families are entirely dependent on outside aid. “If it were not for the Church, the NGOs and other charitable organizations, it would be impossible to live here,” says Father Sami Halak, a Jesuit in charge of Jesuit Refugee Services in Aleppo. Every day his organization distributes 9,000 hot meals and supports various different educational programs for young people.

“Many families, with an average of four members, need between 80,000 and 200,000 Syrian pounds a month in order to be able to live even modestly. Yet the average salary today is only around 30,000 Syrian pounds – and that is for those who can actually earn a wage, since the level of unemployment is extremely high,” Father Halak adds. The cost of basic necessities and housing has shot up because of the devaluation of the currency, which makes life very complicated in Aleppo. Before the war, a dollar was equivalent to 50 Syrian pounds, today it is equal to 550 Syrian pounds.

According to Bishop Audo, “the aid provided by the Catholic Church is increasing and now, with the liberation of Aleppo, there is a huge amount of work to be done.” This work is bearing fruit, however, as every parish has begun, little by little, registering new families who have returned to the city. In the case of the Latin-rite Catholic community, 15 families have returned, one of them from Italy and another from Germany.

“We don’t yet know the exact number of Chaldean families who have returned. I have been in contact with a number of them who have returned from Tartus and Latakia. But regardless of how many families are arriving, others are leaving because the situation is unstable, and they don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” the bishop said.

The Christian community in Aleppo is among those who have suffered most from the consequences of the war. Of the 150,000 Christians who used to live in the city in 2011 there are just some 35,000 left as of mid-2017. But not all of them have left. There are men like Dr. Nabil Antaki, a gastroenterologist, who has stayed put the whole time among the people, helping those wounded in the war and coordinating the project known as “A Drop of Milk,” which is supported by ACN and provides milk for 3,000 children each month.

One of the doctor’s brothers was murdered by the rebels as he was driving from Aleppo to Homs . Antaki actually holds Canadian nationality, and his children are living in the United States, “but my wife and I told them that we were going to stay on here because we wanted to help those in need and our mission is here,” he said.

He believes that the war will end only when foreign powers cease funding the armed groups.  In his view, “it is not a war for democracy, it seems rather to be a war for the destruction of Syria.”

Another major problem is the exodus of the younger generation. All men aged between 18 and 42 are compulsorily recruited into the army by the government. There are only two exceptions: being a university student or the only male child in the family. For this reason one hardly sees any youths or men between 18 and 42 in the streets of Aleppo.

There are numerous women, either solitary or with children in their arms. Many of them are widows, while others had stayed on to care for their family while their husbands are serving in the army or have fled the country.

Bahe Salibi (not his real name) is a student of medicine at the University of Aleppo. He comes from Hasaka, in the northeast of the country. He came here because he wanted to become a doctor and help the sick and wounded. At first his family opposed this, because Aleppo was far away and not secure.

He could have completed his studies a year ago, but he has delayed his graduation in order to hold onto his dispensation from having to serve in the army. “I’m afraid, because this year I haven’t received the paper exempting me from military service. I hardly dare go out onto the street in case they identify me,” he said.

To-date, ACN has provided more than $20M in pastoral and humanitarian aid for Syria since the conflict began in 2011—much of which benefitted Christians and Muslims alike.

Ruins in the streets of Aleppo; Dr. Antaki; ACN photos

 

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